To judge by its plot summary, Early Work is about the age-old drama of ethics getting steamrollered by desire. But it’s more than a tale of adultery ... Like a long line of fictional characters before him, Peter dignifies his misdeeds by casting them as potential literary scenarios. A petty deception can be construed as a personal plot twist; a catastrophic drunken evening might make for good material one day. He’s Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland, if she’d vaped a lot and dropped out of a Ph.D. program...And like Catherine Morland’s creator, Martin too balances Peter’s (considerable) annoying qualities with sensitivity, yearning and comic blunders. He doesn’t condemn his character, but he doesn’t justify the guy, either ... It’s not a book that will inspire hot takes or incendiary tweets; the author is unfashionably male and the concerns unfashionably universal. It’s an accomplished and delightful book, but there’s no hashtag for that.
Andrew Martin’s new novel of would-be writers sleeping with each other, understands the power of the first impression. Martin introduces characters in sharp, funny flash-portraits that declare the book’s intention to perch, vape in hand, on the border of earnestness and satire ... Early Work is a gift for those readers who like being flirted with by thoughtful and interesting people, and who like observing such people as they flirt with each other ... Early Work’s fetish is bibliophilia; it’s at least as romantic about literature as it is about romance ... This erotic literariness sometimes helps prop up the satire ... It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly what it wants to say about sex and books, because it appears to care less for arguments or judgments than for watching itself wander among characters who are themselves watching themselves wander.
Early Work isn’t interested in rendering moral judgment on Peter and Leslie’s affair, but it doesn’t shrink from portraying the bleak consequences of the mutual self-absorption that seems to be the driving force in their liaison. Even with that quality of reserve, there’s a lesson to be learned from this quiet novel: Sometimes we’re better off not getting what we want.